Another highly regarded local tourist stop in San Diego—the internationally famous Zoo-- had a really slow start.
In the late 1960s, new tourist attractions were popping up all over Southern California. Among them: Sea World, Lion Country Safari, and Universal Studios. This, coupled with stepped up marketing by established players Disneyland, Marineland, and Knotts Berry Farm, turned competition for entertainment dollars into a dog fight. Add to this inflation and soaring operating expenses, and the San Diego Zoo found itself at a competitive disadvantage. Unlike most municipal zoos which are taxpayer supported, the San Diego Zoo is a nonprofit organization with less than four percent of its annual budget coming from public funds. The zoo had a limited advertising budget and had recently lost a “million dollars” worth of free annual exposure with the demise of the internationally-syndicated television show “Zoorama.” Aggressive promotion was needed.
The public relations office planned and executed a number of modestly successful in-park promotions, from an Easter-egg hunt and hat parade to radio contests, special shows, and establishment of a speakers’ bureau. Zoo PR Manager Bill Seaton proposed training an attractive young lady to act as a “Goodwill Ambassador.” The director and board of trustees approved a small budget for the effort. The first ambassador selected in 1969, from some 200 applicants, was a pretty model who didn’t fulfill the role well. It was decided to find a more animal-oriented person. In 1970, Joan Embery, an SDSU student working part-time in the Kiddie Zoo, was selected. After minimal training, Embery began giving talks and making appearances on local television stations, at hospitals, grand openings, parades, and San Diego bicentennial events. In her spare time, Embery trained a young elephant named Carol to paint on poster board.
Embery and her “artist” began to receive more requests for appearances than could be handled and soon became the “star” of the San Diego Zoo.
The zoo board pressed for national TV coverage. Initial inquiries to “The Tonight Show” were unsuccessful with reports that Johnny Carson “was not comfortable having animals on his show.” Rival talk-show host Steve Allen was the first to book Embery and her artistic elephant on network television. Other media appearances in California, Nevada and Arizona followed.
Zoo PR urged its L.A. representative to continue contacting “The Tonight Show” and the third time was the charm. On Nov. 4, l971, Joan Embery, Carol the elephant, the several other zoo animals (including a two-headed snake that crawled inside Johnny Carson’s sleeve) appeared on NBC. Some 12 million viewers tuned in and Embery was on her way to stardom. As a result, millions of dollars in free advertising were generated for the San Diego Zoo and tourists flocked in. Annual attendance soon topped three million and remained there in spite of competition from increasingly popular Sea World.
As Embery’s fame spread, she appeared on other network shows with zoo animals and did hundreds of television, radio, newspaper, and magazine interviews over the years. She began doing shows with Carol in the zoo amphitheater as a special attraction on big holiday weekends. The elephant’s paintings were even sold in a special auction to raise money for new animal acquisition.
Joan Embery remained the San Diego Zoo’s Goodwill Ambassador for more than three decades and appeared over 100 times on “The Tonight Show.” She subsequently traveled to Africa, England, Australia, and other parts of the world, representing the San Diego Zoo and spreading wildlife conservation messages.